The Endless Argument: Art/Commerce

Over the years I’ve worked in lots of different sorts of bands and of course my students have also. (And no, that’s not me in the photo…) And the ones who come to me as absolute beginners eventually try to find a band and often that first band is a cover band. After all, it’s much easier to copy something that has already been played and recorded than it is to create original lines, and cover bands can find work, paying or otherwise, easier than original bands.  And if they’re any good, a cover band can eventually start to book weddings, bar-mitzvahs, wakes, corporate events, parties, etc., and actually make real money. Maybe not quit-your-day-job money, but real nonetheless.

If you get to very top of the cover band business where the band has a clear identity and gets to play, for instance, show rooms or good-sized corporate gigs, you really can make quit-your-day-job money and even sell records of  your versions of other people’s music. Then there’s the variant of the cover band that’s labeled a “tribute” band, where the band really tries to capture the look, feel, and vibe of a particular artist. At the higher levels this type of outfit can also generate real income. There’s a Led Zeppelin tribute band that does its job so well that no less than Jimmy Page himself commented that they really capture the essence of the original.

From the very early days of my experience with the bass I wanted to work on original music. It’s probably why I’ve never actually made any real money in the business, since it takes not just talent, but incredible drive and a healthy portion of good old dumb luck to get anywhere. Don’t get me wrong; I’m very proud of a lot of the music efforts in which I’ve participated and I’ve played lots and lots of gigs, and put my imprint on a bunch of original songs. Right now I’m looking for another original project to join.

I’m always struck by the question of what makes a true musician. Is it that you make your living playing music? Is it true only if you’re truly creating your own music, as opposed to playing someone else’s? A little digression: I’m addicted to “The Voice.” It’s the only reality TV I watch. And I’m absolutely knocked over by the incredible skills of the house band. They can seemingly play virtually anything, and I know they’re doing it without a lot of time to rehearse. Musical skills? Totally awesome. And yet, I would never see myself doing that job. I want to be the guy that’s in a band that does its own thing, a like-minded group of individuals who come together behind a repertoire of good original songs and grow and mature as a group and share experiences together over time.

But there’s a long list of job descriptions for musicians. Studio musicians often put their own imprint on the songs they record, but except in the world of music nerds they’re largely unknown. There’s the folks who record commercial jingles and movie scores. They usually don’t write what they play, but we all know how important music is to film and TV. There are the cats who play in pit orchestras for musical theatre. Heck, there’s the guy that plays piano in Nordstrom’s, and the countless little two- or three-person outfits that play jazz standards in hotel lobbies and bars. I’m leaving tons of stuff out here, and I’m not forgetting the musicians who have musician “day jobs” and then do their own thing in their spare time.

So what does it for you? Is it pure musicianship, no matter what the source of the material? Or is it pure creativity? Or something else entirely?

A final anecdote: Back in the days when I was first learning to play I was at a music school (Blue Bear) that was all about American popular forms, mostly rock, of course. Every now and then we would get a student who was a classically trained musician who wanted to “go pop,” or “rock out,” or whatever you want to call it. And I witnessed one young woman who could whip out a marvelously played piano concerto at the drop of a hat, but who was absolutely stymied when challenged to jam over three simple chords. She was sweating bullets. I thought she’d plotz. Nothing came out. So, was she any less of musician than someone who can improvise and play just from “the soul,” as opposed to the written page?

I don’t really think she was “less than,” but it’s a hell of question. What do you think?


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